** American Songwriter is proud to introduce a new Lyric Spotlight series featuring interviews with our Lyric Contest judges. We hope these interviews give you insight into the wide spectrum of music industry professionals represented on our panel. **
Justin Levenson has worked to further the careers of songwriters for over eight years at the performing rights organization SESAC. A former high school percussion teacher, Levenson has a successful career on both sides of the music business; he also works as a freelance percussionist and tours locally. We talked to Justin about what SESAC does for songwriters, and what he looks for in a lyric.
You work at SESAC, which is a performing rights organization. Tell us a little bit about what SESAC does, and what you do there.
The main job of a performing rights organization or a PRO is to represent our catalog of songs, so we represent our affiliates, our songwriters and publishers, and we license music users for the use of their copyrights or songs. We then track the performances of their songs, and then pay off the license fees that we collect from music users out to our affiliates in the form of royalties. I’ve been at the company for almost ten years with a variety of roles. My current job is in licensing operations, working underneath the head of the licensing department, managing a lot of different aspects of our licensing operations and a variety of different projects. In the past, I was working in writer-publisher relations, directly working with songwriters and affiliates. In this role, I managed our Affiliation Consultancy Program and worked to affiliate songwriters with a focus on grass roots affiliations and emerging talent. Now there’s still a handful of bands and affiliates that I am the point of contact for, but my main responsibilities have moved on to what we call licensing operations.
How did you get involved with SESAC?
I actually got a job randomly. I’m a musician, and I was setting up in a club, doing soundcheck, and the club owner told me about SESAC. I put in my resume and applied for a part-time bill collector job in our licensing department, ended up getting the job. At the time, I was teaching high school percussion, gigging, and doing a lot of sessions. It was a great fit for me, and at the time it was my toe in, so to speak.
You talked about being a percussionist, and you still do some of that now. What’s it like being on both ends of the music industry?
I love it. I really believe that there’s opportunities for people to be successful on both sides, but at the same time it’s nothing that I was really calculating, it’s just kind of who I am. I’ve always been fortunate enough to have opportunities to play. I once heard Vince Gill talk about how throughout his career and especially at the beginning of his career, new opportunities mainly came from his phone ringing and how thankful he was for the fact that his phone continued to ring; this really resonated with me. Thankfully, my phone keeps ringing with opportunities to play, and then as I got involved with SESAC I found out that I love the business side of things too. I love where the business side of things is going, there are so many opportunities to innovate on that side of things. Honestly, I just try to burn it on every end possible, and take full advantage of every opportunity I get…I can sleep later.
How long have you been involved with the Lyric Contest?
I’ve been in the Lyric Contest a little over a year, going on two years.
What do you look for? What makes a lyric memorable to you?
One thing that stands out is finding a different way to say a common message. So if it’s the message of, “I love you and you’re the most amazing thing to ever come into my life,” how do you say that in a way that’s fresh? To sum it up, a fresh expression of a common message, something that reaches a lot of people, but in a unique kind of way. Another important thing is imagery. To me, when I’m reading these lyrics, I’m always picturing some movie in my head, so to me, it’s what visual things does this evoke? Is there an implied melody that I hear, or a rhyme scheme? Something that just makes it stand out, and to me a lot of that is just the picture that it paints in my head.
What’s a lyric that you wish you’d written?
I was thinking about that this morning, the first thing that came to my mind, “God Bless the Broken Road” that Marcus Hummon wrote, he co-wrote it. That is an amazing, fresh way of saying that this road that has led me to you has been break-ups and heartbreaks, the idea that there’s blessings in disguise. Sometimes not getting what you want is the biggest blessing that can happen, or sometimes a relationship not working out is the best thing that could ever happen, because the lessons you learn help you start anew. That’s the first song that came to mind this morning, just that line, “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.” It’s kind of saying, “I’m so thankful for all these breaks and stumbles along the way that made me the person I am today, that put me in a place ready to be with you.”
Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
I love all kinds of music. I just talked about Marcus Hummon. James Slater’s another one I love, Victoria Shaw, Gary Burr, people that are just amazing. I love Chuck Cannon, I think he’s awesome, Dallas Davidson, there’s just so many. On the younger side of things, Sam Brooker and Audrey Spillman are two favorite up-and-comers from the younger generation of folks who are just doing amazing things. There’s a young girl named Madeleine Slate who is from Canada, and she’s been in town a year or so, she’s definitely one to watch. She is amazing. We’re in this town, with such amazing songwriters, but those are probably some of my favorites.